Our Work Choice: Strike or be crushed!

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It’s taken no time for the Howard Government’s so-called WorkChoices laws to bite, revealing the savagery of the corporate attack on our wages and conditions. As soon as they were enacted in late March this year, employers pounced. Cowra Abattoir sacked 29 workers, rehiring 20 on Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs, or individual contracts replacing collective agreements and awards), stripping as much as $180 a week in bonus payments. Spotlight, a national fabric retailer, instituted AWAs for new employees, paying them, on paper, 2¢ per hour more for the loss of penalty rates and allowances worth $90 per week. On a daily basis, reports of wage cuts, unfair sackings and discriminatory treatment reach union offices and state government advice centres. Employers started a rampage, and they have to be stopped.

Cutting conditions and silencing dissent. The new laws reduce entitlements to five: four weeks’ annual leave (two of which can be traded off for cash) and 10 days’ personal carer’s leave (including sick leave) per year. There is unpaid parental leave, a maximum of 38 hours’ work per week averaged over 12 months, and a minimum wage, currently of $12.75 per hour. Unfair dismissal laws have been totally scrapped for companies employing fewer than 100 staff, so those workers can get the pink slip as easily as those at Cowra. Unions cannot enter AWA workplaces, and union representation generally is effectively prohibited. Traditionally enshrined conditions, such as penalty rates, shift allowances, extra pay loading for annual leave and paid public holidays have been cut in every one of the agreements sampled by the government’s tame Office of the Employee Advocate.

Voting Labor is not a winning strategy. Despite a patchy response from unions, the movement has not been silent or inactive about this fight. Three national protests in July and November 2005 in the lead-up to the laws’ enactment and in June 2006, three months after, brought millions of workers onto the streets of major cities around the country. Many held workplace meetings to educate and mobilise members. Two all-union delegates meetings organised by Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), packed out the large Dallas Brookes Hall in Melbourne to rally unionists for the national protests. In preparation for the Victorian protests, which galvanised 150,000 in Melbourne and regional cities, VTHC organised leafleting everywhere in the months ahead — from shopping centres and train stations to major footy matches and union-organised community picnics.

But the message from the union movement leadership has consistently been twofold: this bald attack on working people is a Howard phenomenon and, vicious as it is, we must hold back industrial action to elect a Labor government. Wrong and wrong!

WorkChoices wouldn’t be possible without the Prices and Incomes Accord, brokered in 1983 by the Australian Labor Party and the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions). In the early 1980s, the world economy was still unable to shake off the malaise of a slowdown that had set in during the 1970s. Inflation and high unemployment persisted throughout the industrial world. To counter this, a group of high-ranking union officials proposed a “Social Contract” with the ALP government. Workers would hold back on pay demands and become more productive. In return, there would be a social wage in the form of expanded social services (education, welfare, health and childcare). In fact, government spending in these areas was cut almost immediately. By 1990, Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating was able to assure big business that the Accord had reduced labour costs by 14%. In seven years, the share of wages in the national income fell from 74% to 63%, while the share of profit grew from 26% to 36% — a shift from wages to profits worth $400 billion. Corporate taxes decreased from 49% to 36%. Between 1983 and 1991, the after-tax income of the rich increased an average of 29%, while those at the bottom saw theirs fall by 8%.

With a union leadership complicit in delivering the ALP’s program of “wage restraint,” privatisation and deregulation, it’s no wonder that union membership plummeted from 51% in 1981 to just under 40% in 1992 and is now around 23%.

Workers today also have the ALP to blame for “enterprise bargaining,” which broke up the centralised Award system into fragmented collective negotiating units, leaving isolated workplaces to their own devices. AWAs are the logical next step, aimed squarely at smashing unions by criminalising the ability to organise.

Capital’s accomplices. If the Accord was an artful pickpocket, WorkChoices is armed robbery in broad daylight. Labor’s deftness was possible because of its historical relationship with the union movement — a relationship that is becoming tense as union leaders feel the heat from their angry ranks. But the viciousness of WorkChoices cannot be explained away by Howard’s anti-worker zealotry, as union bureaucrats still try to do. Sure, Howard is anti-worker. But both Labor and the Coalition are servants to the boardroom, and their job is to manage and govern in its interests.

Organise the unorganised. Australia is in the middle of a boom, based on its natural resources and fuelled by demand from China. While jobs in manufacturing have fallen, unemployment has also dropped. This has led to an economy-wide skill shortage. In many areas of employment, it’s a seller’s market. This has rattled employers, who sought and won the government’s agreement to drastically weaken bargaining power by attacking solidarity. Where labour is scarcest and unions strongest, the attacks will be blunted, simply because workers can go elsewhere. Where the government will be most successful is in cutting the pay of people in low-paid, non-unionised shops, factories and offices. Given that this is where most young people begin their working life, the plan is to create a generational shift to a low-paid, super-exploited workforce.

Pragmatic CEOs and the less crusading members of the government understand that, short of a police state, to take on the majority of the workforce all at once would have nasty consequences. Firstly, it would risk forcing the union bureaucracy to lead a successful militant fightback like the near-general strikes of 1969 and, secondly, guarantee a crushing Coalition defeat at the next election. The widespread view that this is a fight for the livelihoods of the next generation (and the next after that) is soundly based. It’s why the union movement needs to rally around those less able to defend themselves and why young workers need to be recruited into the ranks and the leadership of the unions. They hold the key to tossing this attack aside. Experienced unionists have a duty to educate younger comrades and colleagues that a life of working three or four low-paying jobs at casual rates is not the norm. We owe it to them to pass on the gains of our generation and all those who fought before.

A great example of this is the UNITE union in New Zealand/Aotearoa. A group of veteran unionists and younger activists has launched a frontal attack on some of the world’s most exploitative bosses. UNITE has successfully unionised young workers at KFC, Starbucks and Pizza Hut. The SuperSizeMyPay.com campaign is now taking on McDonalds, one of the most ruthless anti-union corporations in the world. On Australia’s Gold Coast, a group of young, casual workers has begun a similar campaign. Their heroic stance deserves full support from strong unions.

Similar laws spark worldwide resistance. On May 1 this year, workers around the world protested changes to labour laws that have removed entitlements to paid rest days and holidays, cut wages and made sacking easier. Nepal, Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Italy, Germany, Russia, France, Greece and Spain were just some countries where trade unionists rallied in their tens and hundreds of thousands to claim or reclaim their rights. In the United States, millions in cities across the country stopped work, wagged school and boycotted businesses for Dia Sin Immigrantes (Day Without Immigrants). This U.S. May Day was the culmination of the largest series of working class rallies in the country’s history, beginning in March, in which Americans of all colours came out against various pieces of legislation before Congress that would make life an even worse hell for undocumented immigrants.

Over May and June, textile workers of Bangladesh have defied police and paramilitary, taking over streets of Dhaka to demand a 30% pay rise, a guaranteed basic wage to replace piece rates, overtime and the end to employer harassment. The national economy depends on this sweatshop industry for more than three-quarters of its export income.

Lessons from the General Strike. France showed the world what could be done when workers organise in the most effective way possible — through a general strike. In early February, working people hit the streets to stop the de Villepin Government’s plan to enact the Contrat Premiere Embauche (CPE, or First Employment Contract), which would empower employers to put employees under 26 years of age on a two-year probation and sack them without cause. Promoted as a remedy for the high unemployment among young workers, the CPE was a plan to quash dissent by entrapping them in insecure jobs with substandard conditions. More than 200,000 people hit the streets in protest. Throughout March, numbers swelled to the millions as students and unionists joined forces, organising demonstrations across the country. A 36-hour nationwide strike shut schools, reduced transport to a trickle, stopped mail and newspaper deliveries, disrupted media broadcasts, closed the Eiffel Tower and cancelled a performance of the Paris National Opera. The Socialist Party and the so-called Communist Party, France’s major social democratic parties, attempted to limit the protest to the single issue of the CPE. Student leaders refused to be derailed by this and called on workers, high school students and university undergraduates to demonstrate in all the cities and towns of France on April 11. This forced the French Premier to announce on April 10 that he would withdraw the CPE. This happened in a country faced with a similar law to Australia’s, imposed under the same economic duress, and with a unionised workforce of only 10%.

It’s not a complete victory. The government’s labour bill still stands, minus the CPE component: 15-year-olds face night shifts, 14-year-olds are subject to manual labour apprenticeships, family welfare payments are suspended if a child skips school and older workers stay on precarious contracts. The aim of crushing unionism and slashing social services remains intact. However, the general strike also remains a fresh and inspiring experience, not to be forgotten in the times ahead. And it’s a sure bet that employers in France will think more than twice about using the worst of the French government’s legal weapons.

ALP Leader Kim Beazley recently promised that a Labor government would scrap AWAs. Beazley is a coward, and the only reason he has taken this stance is because he’s seen the vast protests organised by the most active unions. He has read the opinion polls and seen the results from focus groups. The overwhelming majority of working people is against individual contracts and so Beazley twitches. However, this turn-around gives workers a glimpse of the power of a union movement that works independently in the interest of its members. We can defeat WorkChoices by taking heart from the actions in other countries, following the example of the unionists and students of France and the in-your-face grassroots organisers in New Zealand.

It’s not only a fight we can win. It’s a fight we must win.

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